SJF • Proper 24b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”+Last Sunday and next Sunday we heard and will hear Gospel passages in which people ask Jesus various things. Last week it was the rich young man asking what he had to do to gain eternal life. Next week it will be blind Bartimaeus asking for mercy. This week we hear Mark’s account about two of the earliest disciples, the fisherman brothers James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asking for front row seats — the seats of honor next to Jesus in his glory.
This Gospel has particular relevance for us because James is our patron saint, for whom Saint James Church is named. As you may know, the only stained-glass window of Saint James in the church is now walled up behind the altar — and we can only guess it is because when the altar was moved against the end of the church and raised on three steps, it cut the figure of Saint James off at the waist and people thought it looked a little odd.
Our patron saint is not completely without representation in the church, however. In the row of icons at the altar (which I reproduced in today’s bulletin) he is there at the far left, and his brother John is at the far right. So, in a way, at Saint James church at least, James and his brother John do have the honor of being to the left and right of Jesus.
But it is important to note that in most churches with icons, those places are taken by Peter and Paul, and in all churches with such an arrangement of icons, the most honorable seats in this portrayal of the heavenly banquet belong to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist. In other words, the church has long understood Jesus’s response to James and John as indicating that those seats of honor were reserved for someone else — for the one whom every age would call Blessèd, and the one who was “the Forerunner” and first proclaimer of the Lamb of God.
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Now, I don’t know about you, but I can well understand the other disciples getting annoyed with James and John when they rushed to the head of the class. We’ve probably all known people who put themselves forward, in the process of putting everyone else down. People might call them the “teacher’s pet” or a “crawler.” There is something offputting about this kind of ambition — an instinctive sense that it is inappropriate to push forward and try to take the front row seats, the best seats, the seats of honor.
Indeed, Jesus elsewhere advises against this sort of behavior: telling people to take the lowest seats at the banquet so that they might be honored in being asked to come up higher, rather than taking a high seat and being embarrassed to be asked to move down lower. Apparently James and John did not think this applied to them — they were, after all, part of the inner circle, along with Peter, who had been invited to go with Jesus to the mountaintop, and later those three would accompany him to the garden of Gethsemane. Maybe the trip to the mountaintop went to their heads!
Whatever the reason, whether pride or self-satisfaction or because of earlier signs of favor, James and John clearly overstep in their request for prime seating, and Jesus gently corrects them, and the other disciples as well, when they get bent out of shape in this unsavory contest of “who does Jesus like best.” Jesus doesn’t settle the issue and say anything about who will be seated where — and as with the seats at the banquet advises taking the position of a servant — of one who serves.
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As with all Gospel passages, however, there is more to this account. Notice what Jesus does predict concerning James and John. They will drink the cup that he will drink, and undergo the baptism with which he is baptized. And this is where our row of icons comes in again: for although the images of the saints and angels are ranged at the altar where we celebrate the earthly foreshadowing of the heavenly banquet, they are also ranged at the foot of the cross.
This is the cup that Christ would drink, the baptism with which he would be baptized: a cup he would earnestly entreat his father in Gethsemane to pass him by — while James, John and Peter were sleeping. But in union with his father’s will he accepted it, accepted death on the cross for our salvation, in union with us his brothers and sisters.
The prophet Isaiah had spoken centuries before of this suffering servant of God — the one upon whom the iniquity of all of us wandering sheep long since gone astray, would be laid. “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Or as an old prayer has it, “By his cross and passion we come to the glory of his resurrection.”
Christ knew that this was what lay before him — the bitter cup and the baptism of death. James and John would indeed share in this with him — James would be the first of the apostles to die for his faith. And his brother John, though he lived to old age, would know the bitterness of exile on the island of Patmos.
And all of us who bear the name of Christian, if Christians we are, share with our Lord in his sufferings as we share in solidarity with all human suffering: doing our best to alleviate it as servants of the one in whose image every human being is made. This is the way that Jesus commends to his apostles, and through them to us: not to lord it over others as their masters, but to serve them as Christ served us and gave himself a ransom for many.
The Christian life is not about climbing the greasy pole to success, of clambering to attain a front row seat, to elbow others out of your way to get the places of honor. Rather it is about the ministry of service that stoops to wash the feet of the poor, that gives itself and spends itself for the benefit of others and their well-being.
But the Christian life is also not about envying those who do succeed or gain seats of honor and privilege, especially when that honor comes unexpected and as a surprise even to the one so honored. I think of some of the recent reactions to President Obama’s Nobel laureate. I very much doubt this is something he expected and he appears to have received it with grace; and I can’t help but hear in the voices of some of those who have said he doesn’t deserve it, the envious echoes of those other disciples.
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Neither pride nor envy are attractive human traits. Jesus would have us avoid them both. And the surest way to do that is to do as he said: to serve as he did, even if it means a bitter cup and a painful baptism. Few if any of us will be asked to go as far as the apostles and martyrs; but we can do our bit in patience and humility, in service to the least of our brothers and sisters.
And so, away with pride and envy. Our Lord and God has seats prepared for us, and though we know not where exactly they will be, we know that they will be with him, and that should be enough to satisfy us. What need is there for ambition when we have such promises from the living Word of God himself: that living, active word, sharper than a two edge sword that judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart; before whom nothing is hidden and to whom we must render an account; but one who is also able to sympathize with our weakness, as he has borne our griefs. With this Word of God for us, what can stand against us? As Martin Luther wrote,
That word above all earthly Powers,
no thanks to them abideth;
the spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth:
let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still,
his kingdom is for ever.+